Thursday, November 01, 2012

John Henry Mackay's "The Anarchists"

I was selling my books at this year's Rainbow Books Fair, when someone came by who seemed to recognize me but whom I didn't recognize. Too embarrassed to ask him about himself, I watched speechlessly as he signed a book and gave it to me. The book was a centenary edition of The Anarchists by John Henry Mackay. The man was, as I just this week discovered from the signature in the book, the editor Mark A. Sullivan. Tired of reading poetry and wanting to immerse myself in prose, I picked up the book and read it over two days.

The Anarchists is the first of a pair of books that Mackay himself called propaganda, not novels. (The other book is called The Dreamseeker.) The polemic advocating Anarchism is thinly fictionalized. Carrard Auban, the intellectual who walks with a limp, clearly represents Mackay and his political philosophy. His best friend Otto Trupp, always described as a well-built fellow, is the Communist agitator whom Auban tries to convert. Mackay is at pains in this book to distinguish Individualist Anarchism from so-called Anarchic Communism.

The former proceeds on the fact and value of egoism, whereas the latter, in Mackay's, and so in Auban's, view, builds Utopia on the false idea of human altruism. According to the Individualist Anarchist, the State is the problem because it protects the oppressors against the oppressed. His solution is to get rid of the state, in order to free competition not only in labor but also in capital. To the Anarchic Communist, the problem is the market. His solution is to get rid of the market and then get people to behave according to their noblest impulse, as captured in the formula, from each his best, to each his need. The breach between the two friends, Auban and Trupp, is inevitable. The unspoken attraction of Auban for Trupp, who is in a way a younger, better, version of himself, lends that breach some poignancy.

I have been influenced by my life in the States in a too-unthinking manner to question the current link between anti-statism and rightwing politics. The call to reduce Government seems to come from either the rich who are resentful of taxation, or from social conservatives who reject top-down changes to their social beliefs. The progressives, on the other hand, see the government as a bulwark against economic and social injustice. What Mackay's book argues is that the State protects the status quo, which always favors the powerful and the privilege. Whatever little redistributive justice that it performs is a mere sop to the exploited who cannot obtain the full value of their labor as long as there is no full competition in capital markets as welll.

The Anarchists accompanies its social arguments with horrifying pictures of the condition of the poor in London in the 1880's. On his own, and also led by Trupp, Auban wanders through hellish neighborhoods in the East End. He sees the corpse of a homeless man who died of starvation. A group of children, so morally distorted by their misery, torture a cat by gouging out its eyes and hanging it up by its tail. Mackay also records the radical workingmen's clubs of the time, hospitable to German, Russian and Jewish immigrants. He is very good at giving a sense of the heated discussions that swirled around the Haymarket trial in Chicago of the eight anarchists accused of throwing a bomb against the police. A chapter is devoted to a vivid account of the clash between protestors and police around Trafalgar Square when the authorities suspended the freedom of assembly at the square.

What comes through these descriptions is a deep compassion for the poor and oppressed. Anarchism must be understood as a political philosophy rooted in that compassion, and not in the winner-takes-all mentality too often associated with American libertarianism. But is the State really the source of all evil, as Mackay contends? Will its dissolution bring about not just liberty, but equality of opportunities, as he seems to promise? Even without the help of the State, what is to stop the rich and powerful from forming their own private army to guard the gains that they have made or inherited? It would be nice if everyone respects the liberty of others, as they wish their own liberty to be respected. But isn't that wish as idealistic as the Communist hope for altruism? Who will guarantee our liberties?

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